GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Let’s break it down word by word. Genetically refers to genes. DNA is made by genes which is a set of instructions for how cells grow and develop.
The second is modified and implies some changes. Lastly, we have the word Organisms. When it comes to GMOs, many people only think of crops. Yet an ‘organism’ isn’t just a plant; it refers to all living things, including bacteria and fungi.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Genetically Modified Organisms are organisms, plants, animals, or microorganisms in which the genetic material (DNA) is altered. It does not occur naturally with mating and/or natural recombination known as GMO’s.
GMOs are produced through genetic technologies. Now it is a part of everyday life, entering into society through agriculture, medicine, research, and environmental management.
However, while GMOs have benefited human society in many ways, some disadvantages exist; therefore, the production of GMOs remains a highly controversial topic in many parts of the world.
GMOs in agriculture:
Genetically modified (GM) foods were first approved for human consumption in the United States in 1994. In 2014–15 about 90 percent of the corn, cotton, and soybeans planted in the United States were GM.
Engineered crops can dramatically increase per area crop yields and, in some cases, reduce the use of chemical insecticides.
For example, the application of wide-spectrum insecticides declined in many areas growing plants, such as potatoes, cotton, and corn. They endowed with a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a natural insecticide called Bt toxin.
India conducted field studies in which Bt cotton compared with non-Bt cotton. Demonstration results in a 30–80 percent increase in yield from the GM crop.
Other GM plants engineered for resistance to a specific chemical herbicide, rather than resistance to a natural predator or pest.
Herbicide-resistant crops (HRC) have been available since the mid-1980s. When the HRC plants survive in fields treated with the corresponding herbicide, these crops give effective chemical control to weeds.
Another example of a GM crop is “golden” rice, originally intended for Asia. Genetically modified to produce almost 20 times the beta-carotene of previous varieties.
Golden rice was created by modifying the rice genome to include a gene from the daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus that produces an enzyme known as phytoene synthase and a gene from the bacterium Erwinia uredovora that produces an enzyme called phytoene desaturase.
The introduction of these genes enabled beta-carotene and converted it to vitamin A in the human liver, to accumulate in the rice endosperm—the edible part of the rice plant—thereby increasing the amount of beta-carotene available for vitamin A synthesis in the body.
GMOs in medicine and research
GMOs have emerged as one of the mainstays of biomedical research since the 1980s. For example, GM animal models of human genetic diseases enabled researchers to test novel therapies and to explore the roles of candidate risk factors and modifiers of disease outcome.
GM microbes, plants, and animals also revolutionized the production of complex pharmaceuticals by enabling the generation of safer and cheaper vaccines and therapeutics.
It is factor VIII (for hemophiliacs) and tissue plasminogen activator (tPA, for heart attack or stroke patients). Both of which are produced in GM mammalian cells grown in laboratory culture.
Finally, genetic modification of humans via gene therapy is becoming a treatment option for diseases ranging from rare metabolic disorders to cancer.
For example, a normal beta-globin gene introduced into the DNA of bone marrow-derived hematopoietic stem cells from a patient with sickle cell anemia; the introduction of these GM cells into the patient could cure the disease without the need for a matched donor.
Role of GMOs in environmental management
Another application of GMOs is in the management of environmental issues.
For example, some bacteria produce biodegradable plastics, and the transfer of that ability to microbes that can easily grown in the laboratory may enable the wide-scale “greening” of the plastics industry. In the early 1990s, Zeneca, a British company, developed a microbially produced biodegradable plastic called Biopol polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA).
With the help of a GM bacterium, plastic prepared. Ralstonia eutropha, to convert glucose and a variety of organic acids into a flexible polymer. GMOs endowed with the bacterially encoded ability to metabolize oil and heavy metals may provide efficient bioremediation strategies.
Safety and concerns
Although current research suggests that GMO foods are safe, there is some concern around their long-term safety and environmental impact.
Here are some of the key concerns around GMO consumption.
There is some concern that GMO foods may trigger an allergic reaction.
This is because GMO foods contain foreign genes, so some people worry that they harbor genes from foods that may prompt an allergic reaction.
A study from the mid-1990s found that adding a protein from Brazil nuts to GMO soybeans could trigger an allergic reaction in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. However, after scientists discovered this, they quickly abandoned this GMO food.
Although allergy concerns are valid, there have been no reports of allergic reactions to GMO foods currently on the market.
In addition, research has shown that GMO foods are no likelier to trigger allergies than their non-GMO counterparts.
Yet, if you have a soy allergy, both GMO and non-GMO soy products will prompt an allergic reaction.
Currently, no human research ties GMO intake to cancers. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has stated that there’s no evidence to link GMO food intake to an increased or decreased risk of cancer.
All the same, no long-term human studies exist. There is a need for more long-term human research.
Other environmental and health concerns
GMOs into the environment also raised concerns. More-established risks associated with the potential spread of engineered crop genes to native flora and the possible evolution of insecticide-resistant “superbugs”.
From the late 1990s, the European Union (EU) addressed such concerns by implementing strict GMO labeling laws. In the early 2000s, all GM foods and GM animal feeds in the EU required to labeled if they consisted of or contained GM products in a proportion greater than 0.9 percent.
In India law made the Genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) under the environment ministry looks upon licensing GM foods.
Under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, growing GM crops that the government did not approve is can lead to a five-year jail term and a hefty ₹1 lakh fine.
By contrast, in the United States, foods containing GM ingredients did not require special labeling. However, there was a debate at the national and state levels.
GMOs benefit mankind when used for purposes such as increasing the availability and quality of food and medical care and contributing to a cleaner environment. If used wisely, they could result in an improved economy without doing more harm than good, and they could also make the most of their potential to alleviate hunger and disease worldwide.
However, the full potential of GMOs unable to realize without due diligence and thorough attention to the risks associated with each new GMO on a case-by-case basis.